Operation Bulbasket

'Bulbasket' was a British special forces disruption and intelligence-gathering raid by elements of the 1st Special Air Service near Vienne and Châtellerault in the central part of German-occupied France (6 June/7 August 1944).

Undertaken in concert with 'Houndsworth', the operation was designed to prevent the movement of German forces (most importantly SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Heinz Lammerding’s [from 24 July SS-Standartenführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Christian Tychsen’s] 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich') from the south-western part of France in the aftermath of 'Overlord', principally by blocking the railway line linking Paris and Bordeaux, and to gather intelligence of German strengths and dispositions in the area.

The 56 British soldiers (44 of B Squadron, 1st Special Air Service, and 12 men of F Squadron, GHQ Liaison Regiment as the signals section) committed to 'Bulbasket' were part of the Special Air Service Brigade created in 1944 with the British 1st and 2nd Special Air Service, French 3rd and 4th SAS, and Belgian 5th SAS. The brigade was tasked with the planning and execution of parachute-landed operations behind the German lines in France, and then of operations supporting the Allied advance through Belgium, the Netherlands and eventually into Germany.

In May 1944 the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force had issued an order for the SAS Brigade to carry out an initial pair of operations in German-occupied France. These were 'Houndsworth' in the area of Dijon by A Squadron and 'Bulbasket' in the area of Poitiers by B Squadron. Each of these parallel undertakings was to disrupt the movement of German reinforcements from the southern part of of France toward the 'Overlord' beach-heads in Normandy. To carry out the 'Bulbasket', the SAS troopers were to destroy supply dumps, block the railway line linking Paris and Bordeaux near Poitiers, and attack railway sidings and fuel trains. The primary objective was the delay of the movement of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich', a high-grade armoured formation currently resting and refitting in Valence d’Agen, just to the north of Toulouse. SHAEF intelligence concerned with 'Overlord' had estimated it would take three days for this Panzer division to reach Normandy.

The officer commanding B Squadron was Captain John Tonkin of the Royal Marines, with 2nd Lieutenant Richard Crisp as his second in command, and both men were briefed by SHAEF in London on 1 June 1944. Over the next two days they spent time at the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive, which had agents of its 'F' Section operating in the area under the command of Capitaine Maingard (codenamed 'Samuel'), who also had links with the two main French resistance groups in the area, namely the Francs Tireurs et Partisans and the Armée Secrète. Tonkin was also given a list of rail targets by the headquarters of the Special Air Service.

The advance party for 'Bulbasket', including Tonkin, was delivered into France by a Handley Page Halifax of B Flight, No. 161 Squadron RAF, a special duties squadron. The drop zone was an area of the Brenne marsh some 19 miles (31 km) to the south-west of Châteauroux, which they reached at 01.37 on 6 June. On the ground the advance party was met by Maingard. Two other B Squadron groups were parachuted into the operational area, the first on 7 June and the second on 11 June. Also dropped at the same time were Jeep vehicles armed with Vickers K machine guns.

Once on the ground, the SAS troopers embarked on their mission to prevent German reinforcements flowing toward Normandy. They attacked the rail network, laid mines, undertook vehicle patrols in their Jeeps, and provides support (especially training) for members of the resistance. On 10 June a French railwayman informed Tonkin that there was a train with at least 11 petrol tanker wagons at the rail sidings at Châtellerault. These were the fuel reserves for the advancing 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich'. To confirm their location, Tonkin sent Lieutenant Tomos Stephens to reconnoitre the area. Travelling alone, Stephens made the 74-mile (119-km) round trip by bicycle, and returned on 11 June to confirm the location of the petrol train. He also reported that it was too heavily guarded for the SAS squadron to deal with. Tonkin contacted England and requested an air attack, and on the same night a force of 12 de Havilland Mosquito bombers (six each from No. 138 Wing at Lasham and No. 140 Wing at Gravesend) attacked and destroyed the train in its sidings.

To prevent their camp being located by German radio direction-finding equipment or informers, Tonkin regularly moved its location, but always to a site close to water and a drop zone for parachute supply. The camp located near Verrières, used between 25 June and 1 July, was near the drop zone at La Font d’Usson, but local people became aware of the camp and Maingard warned Tonkin that if the locals knew, informers would soon tell the Germans. Tonkin ordered the squadron to move to a new camp just to the south in the Bois des Cartes. This new camp was also close to the drop zone at La Font d’Usson, where a supply drop was expected on the night of 3/4 July. On the party’s arrival to the new camp at Bois des Cartes, the water supply from a well failed and Tonkin decided to return to Verrières until a more suitable camp site could be found.

The SS Sicherheitsdienst (security police) had been informed that the SAS camp was located in a forest near Verrières, and on 1 July sent agents into the forest to attempt to locate the camp as an attack force was assembled on the basis of the reserve battalion of SS-Brigadeführer under Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Otto Baum’s 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Götz von Berlichingen', which was based at Bonnil-Matours. After the SAS party had arrived back at its previous base camp, Tonkin set out on 2 July to try and locate a new camp. He returned in the early hours of 3 July just before the attack of the Germans, who had managed to surround the camp during the night. The force in the forest camp comprised 40 SAS men, 2nd Lieutenant Lincoln Bundy (a US Army Air Forces' pilot whose North American P-51 Mustang had been shot down 10 June 1944), and nine French resistance fighters.

The Germans attacked at dawn, and it was all over by 14.00. As the Germans searched the forest the SAS group tried to break out, and a 34-man party was moving along a forest track when it were ambushed and captured. Stephens, the leader of the party, was beaten to death by a German officer using a rifle butt, and seven captured maquisards were executed in the woods. The SAS men and the US pilot should have been treated as prisoners of war, but their fate was determined by the Hitler’s earlier 'commando order', which mandated the execution of commandos. The decision about who was to execute the men was argued between the German army and the SS before it was decided that the army would carry out the execution. On 7 July, the surviving prisoners of war, 30 SAS men and Bundy, were taken into the woods near to St Sauvant, forced to dig their own graves then executed by a German firing squad at dawn under the command of SS Major Josef Kieffer. Their bodies were then buried in a mass grave. Three SAS troopers who had been wounded were killed in hospital by lethal injection.

'Hugh', a British 'Jedburgh' team operating in the area, reported the fact of the execution to Special Forces HQ, requesting a reprisal attack on the headquarters of the 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Götz von Berlichingen in Bonneuil-Matours. Special Forces HQ passed the request to the SAS Brigade, which contacted Air Vice Marshal B. E. Embry’s No. 2 Group, which was part of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s British 2nd Tactical Air Force. Embry assigned the reprisal attack to operation to Group Captain P. G. Wykeham-Barnes’s No. 140 Wing, which was the unit that had responded to the 'Bulbasket' request for the attack on the supply train at Châtellerault in the previous month. By this time, No. 140 Wing was operating from Thorney Island where, on 14 July, Embry personally briefed the 14 crews selected for this operation. The plan was a four-phase undertaking: four Mosquito fighter-bombers dropped HE bombs; six following aircraft dropped US M76 incendiary bombs; the remaining aircraft dropped more HE bombs; and finally the aircraft returned to strafe the target before returning to base.

The Mosquito fighter-bombers departed Thorney Island at about 21.00, met their escort of 12 Mustang Mk III fighters for the daylight crossing, at low level, of German-held territory in northern France and reached the target area at about 21.00 local time, when the German troops were eating their evening meal. The attack went as planned and all seven barrack blocks were destroyed; local estimates of the number of German troops killed varied from 80 to about 200. All aircraft safely returned to Thorney Island in the early hours of 15 July.

Tonkin and the remainder of the SAS party (eight survivors of the attack and three other men who had been away on a smaller operation at the time) escaped, regrouped and carried on with the mission until they were ordered to stand down on 24 July 1944. Four days later they moved to an area to the north of Montmorillon, and on 6/7 August they were extracted. During the period between 10 June and 23 July, the SAS party had attacked railway targets 15 times, mined the Route Nationale N10 to the south of Vivonne and the Route Nationale N147 between Angers and Limoges; and had also attacked a number of targets of opportunity. It was during the night of 12/13 June that Lieutenant Crisp, one of those later executed, had led the patrol which mined the N147 in the Forêt de Défant just before the 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich' arrived in the area.

During its progress toward Normandy, the 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Götz von Berlichingen was responsible for the Tulle murders on 9 June 1944 and the massacre at the village of Oradour sur Glane on 10 June. In the former, a successful resistance effort on 7/8 June was followed by the arrival of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich', forcing the resistance fighters to evacuate the city of Tulle in the Limousin region of France. On 9 June, after arresting all men between the ages of 16 and 60, the SS and members of the Sicherheitsdienst ordered the hanging of 120 of the prisoners, 99 of whom were first tortured. In the next few days 149 men were sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where 101 lost their lives. In total, the actions of the German army, Waffen-SS and Sicherheitsdienst claimed the lives of 213 civilian residents of Tulle.

In the latter, 642 French civilians were massacred. The element of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich' responsible for this atrocity was SS-Standartenführer Sylvester Stadler’s 4th SS Panzergrenadierregiment 'Der Führer'. Other officers were SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, the commander of the 1/4th SS Panzergrenadierregiment, and SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Weidinger, who was Stadler’s designated successor as regimental commander and was with the regiment for familiarisation purposes; regimental command passed from Stadler to Weidinger on 14 June.

Early on the morning of 10 June, Diekmann informed Weidinger at regimental headquarters that he had been approached by two members of the Milice, a paramilitary force of the Vichy French regime, who claimed that a Waffen-SS officer was being held by the resistance in Oradour sur Vayres, a nearby village. The captured German was alleged to be SS-Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe, commander of the 2nd SS SS Panzeraufklärungsabteilung, an element of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich', who might have been captured by the Maquis du Limousin on the previous day.

On 10 June, Diekmann’s battalion sealed off Oradour sur Glane, having confused it with nearby Oradour sur Vayres, and ordered all the townspeople (and anyone who happened to be in or near the town) to assemble in the village square, ostensibly to have their identity papers examined. In addition to the residents of the village, the SS also seized six people who happened to be riding their bicycles through the village when the Germans arrived.

All the women and children were locked in the church while the village was looted. Meanwhile, the men were led to six barns and sheds where machine guns were already in place. According to the account of a survivor, the soldiers began shooting at them, aiming for their legs so that they would die slowly. Once the victims were no longer able to move, the soldiers covered their bodies with fuel and set the barns on fire. Only six men escaped; one of them was later seen walking down a road heading for the cemetery and was shot dead. In all, 190 men perished.

The soldiers moved to the church and ignited an incendiary device. Any women and children who tried to escape through the doors and windows were machine gunned. Some 247 women and 205 children died. The only survivor was Marguerite Rouffanche, who slid out by a rear sacristy window, followed by a young woman and child: all three were shot, and while Rouffanche was wounded, the two others were killed. Rouffanche crawled to some pea vines behind the church, where she remained hidden overnight and was rescued during the morning of the following day by a group of about 20 villagers who had fled as soon as the soldiers appeared.

On the night of 10/11 June the Germans partially razed the village. A few days later, survivors were allowed to bury the dead.

The operations of the 'Bulbasket' and other parties delayed the arrival of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision in Normandy until the end of June.

Despite its losses, 'Bulbasket' had achieved much including the triggering of four (possibly five) air attacks which killed more than 150 German troops and an unknown number of Milice; the destruction of crucial petrol stocks, delaying the progress of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich' to Normandy; delay of Generalleutnant Wolfgang von Kluge’s 226th Division as it moved north from Bayonne; delay of Generalmajor Maximilian Wengler’s 227th Division as it moved north from Carcassonne; and 23 successful road and rail sabotage operations.